Three years ago, at one of the huge demonstrations that preceded the invasion of Iraq, I ran into a 16-year-old friend, visibly excited by the size of the crowd and the sense of common purpose. “They can’t go to war now, can they?” he said, “Not after this … ” Well, they did, and three years later the fears of the protesters have been born out many times over. Yet the size of the protests has diminished.
This is not because the reasons to protest have gone away. On the contrary, the threat of a new war against Iran, the dispatch of more than 3,000 UK troops to the unfinished war in Afghanistan and, above all, the continuing injustice and destructiveness of the occupation of Iraq should provide more than sufficient motivation for people to join the marches being held this Saturday in London and around the world.
That the aftermath of the invasion has been disastrous is now conceded nearly universally, but there’s a confusion about this disaster’s nature and causes and the remedy for it. In Britain, coverage of violence in Iraq focuses on suicide attacks and bomb blasts targeting civilians. These have increased in number and are indeed horrifying, but they account for only a small proportion of the lethal violence convulsing Iraq.
According to the US military, there were 34,000 insurgent attacks in 2005 – up 30% on 2004. The US Government Accountability Office recently reported to Congress that there were 2,500 “violent confrontations” in December 2005 (more than 80 a day and “almost 250%” more than in March 2004). Significantly, about 80% of these attacks targeted occupying forces, 10% targeted Iraqi armed forces and about 10% Iraqi civilians. Suicide attacks with car bombs rose to 411 in 2005 from 133 in 2004, but still comprised only 1.2% of the total.
For Iraqis, the daily threat of violence comes from many sources: guards at checkpoints, armed vehicles on patrol, criminal gangs, death squads working with government and police, and, not least, concerted US-British military operations. Scarcely reported in this country, the occupiers have been escalating their air war against alleged insurgent strongholds. In the last six months of 2005, US forces conducted more than 400 air strikes, involving bombers, gunships or unmanned drones. The tactics used in Falluja in November 2004 – which left more than two-thirds of the city’s buildings uninhabitable and took thousands of civilian lives – have been repeated elsewhere. In Ramadi, Al-Qaim, Haditha, Baiji and elsewhere, hi-tech assaults against densely populated areas have killed and injured civilians, destroyed hospitals, schools and homes, and turned tens of thousands of Iraqis into refugees in their own land. Seymour Hersch in the New Yorker reports that, since March 2003, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing alone has dropped more than 500,000 tonnes of ordnance on Iraq, compared to the 2m tonnes dropped by all US forces in the entire course of the Vietnam war.
The US foreign aid agency says Iraq is suffering a “social breakdown” in which criminals have “almost free rein”. Since the occupation began, more than 300 educators, scientists and intellectuals have been assassinated. The Iraqi minister of replacement and migration has admitted that it is now unsafe for Iraqis to return from abroad. Amnesty International says “the human rights situation in the country remains dire”. Occupying forces have detained without charge or trial more than 35,000 Iraqis. Currently, at least 15,000 are being held in US or British camps – a 300% increase over March 2004. An unknown number of detainees have been tortured and some killed. According to the former UN human rights chief in Iraq, every month in Baghdad alone hundreds of Iraqis are tortured to death or summarily executed by death squads working from the ministry of the interior.
After three years of occupation, “virtually every measure of the performance of Iraq’s oil, electricity, water and sewerage sectors has fallen below pre-invasion values”, according to the New York Times. A poll conducted for the MoD last year showed that 71% of Iraqis rarely get clean water, 47% never have enough electricity, and 70% say their sewerage system rarely works. Reconstruction is at a standstill and the only new funds earmarked by the US are for prisons. Oil production fell in January to half its prewar levels.
A study conducted by IMF and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) revealed that the number of Iraqis below the poverty line has increased since the fall of Saddam Hussein to one-fifth of the population, with 2 million Iraqi families currently living on less than $1 per day per person. Causes for increasing poverty were given as “the rise in unemployment, violence and the decline in public sector and civil service jobs”. Another UNDP study reported that acute malnutrition among Iraqi children has nearly doubled since the invasion of 2003. Yet last month, the Iraqi government slashed allocations for food rations by 25%. On the orders of the IMF, it also cut fuel subsidies, leading to a fivefold increase in prices.
Meanwhile, corruption (involving occupying forces, Iraqi officials and multinational corporations) is rampant. In its 2005 report, Transparency International, an independent monitor, warned that postwar Iraq could be “the biggest corruption scandal in history”.
All of this – the violence, the human rights abuses, the poverty, the social and economic breakdown, the plunder – is happening not in spite of but because of the occupation. Which is why Iraqis themselves have consistently demanded an end to it. In a poll commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence, 82% said they were “strongly opposed” to the presence of coalition troops and 67% felt less secure because of the occupation. Crucially, less than 1% believed coalition forces had improved security. These views have been confirmed by other polls and by the large anti-occupation demonstrations repeatedly staged in various cities, but rarely reported here. What’s more, nearly all the groups that took part in the elections last year have called for a timetable for withdrawal. The US and Britain insist they know better.
The brutal realities of the occupation, under-reported as they are, ought to be enough to get anyone out on Saturday morning. Yet many still hesitate, troubled by the nature of the resistance, the fear of civil war, and not least a sense of futility about political protest.
There should be no surprise that a violent resistance has arisen in answer to a violent occupation. And no surprise that this resistance has proved a complicated, multi-faceted and evolving phenomenon. The “Zarqawi” wing of it is indeed utterly ruthless, reactionary and sectarian, but was responsible for only a few hundred of the 34,000 insurgent attacks last year. It is unpopular in the extreme among the Iraqi population, the vast majority of whom (including nearly all religious figures) condemn its brutal methods. But the resistance as a whole is a very different matter. Most factions are driven by a desire to end foreign occupation, and most routinely distance themselves from suicide bombers who target mosques and civilians. The recent GAO Congressional testimony cites a senior US military officer saying that “almost all” of ”the various insurgent groups … are an intrinsic part of Iraq’s population” – which is why resistance has been sustained despite the ferocity of the US-British counter-insurgency.
The spectre of civil war seems to be the most favoured current excuse for prolonging the occupation. It’s true that sectarian tensions and violence have been rising, especially since the bombing of the Shia mosque in Samarra. However, the hundreds of thousands who demonstrated in Iraqi cities after that atrocity not only repudiated sectarian division but laid the blame for it squarely on the occupiers, and not without reason. The US and Britain have pursued a reckless divide-and-rule strategy, insisting Iraqis be represented in religious or ethnic blocks, and playing off one group against another. In addition, an unknown proportion of the sectarian attacks are actually carried out by groups sponsored by the US and Britain. Sectarian and ethnic division certainly existed in Iraq prior to the invasion, but the occupation has widened and inflamed it. Far from preventing civil war, the US-British presence makes it more likely. The occupying forces lack legitimacy, their motives are widely suspect and they cannot therefore act as effective peacekeepers, even if they wanted to.
The notion that the occupation can bring stability, democracy or justice to Iraq ignores how and why the US and British troops got there in the first place, and the abiding priorities of the governments that sent them there. These remain to secure a pro-western government and control over the region’s resources. Those aims are simply not compatible with the interests of Iraqis. The same disrespect for Iraqis’ right and capacity to determine their own future that underpinned the invasion informs the occupation, and will continue to do so. Ending the occupation will certainly not solve all Iraq’s problems, but it is a precondition for Iraqis to unite and rebuild.
After decades of western-sponsored sanctions and war, our obligations to the Iraqi people do not end there. A massive programme of reparations will be needed. But that cannot begin until we end the US-British attempt to control Iraq’s destiny by force of arms.
Many who agree with all of the above will still not protest on Saturday because they have come to believe that the Blair government (or any government) is impervious to protest. In a sense, the antiwar movement has been a victim of its own success. “We marched in unprecedented numbers,” people say, “and still they went to war, still they ignored us – so what’s the point of marching again?”
I don’t have a glib answer to that question. I’d like to suggest that it’s too early to judge the long-term significance of the demonstrations held three years ago. People who took part in the non-cooperation campaigns in India in the 20s and 30s had to wait a long time for independence. There were eight years of protest and more than 2 million dead before the Vietnam war came to an end. However, I suspect my young friend, now 19 years old, will be less than inspired by this sort of argument. What I do know is that not protesting makes it more likely that a wicked policy will remain in operation, and that more suffering will flow from it. Given what’s happening in Iraq, and given our government’s responsibility for it, marching on Saturday boils down to a matter of conscience.